Journalism from the center of the world

With the support of the National Public Security Force, Ibama agents put out a fire set by criminals on a bridge, during an operation to fight deforestation held in August 2023, in Pará. Photo: Lela Beltrão/SUMAÚMA

When his cell phone rang, Jair Schmitt was wearing a pair of shorts and flip-flops and waiting for an outdoor table at a Vila Planalto restaurant in Brasilia. It was January 6, 2023, the first Friday of the year, a sunny day with some lingering celebrations in a city still filled with Workers’ Party supporters who had attended Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva‘s third inauguration as president of Brazil.

Rodrigo Agostinho, a federal deputy with the Brazilian Socialist Party representing the state of São Paulo, was the one calling him. Formerly a coordinator of the Environmentalist Parliamentary Front, he had been chosen by Environment and Climate Change Minister Marina Silva to head the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, or Ibama, the country’s environmental regulator. Agostinho asked if Jair, who had worked at the agency since 2002, could come to his office.

Jair scarfed down his lunch, rushed home to put on a suit and tie, and headed to the Chamber of Deputies’ Annex IV, a ten-floor building with a façade covered in yellow slats holding most of the offices of the country’s 513 federal deputies, or lower house members. After two hours of talking, he left with a job to lead Ibama’s Environmental Protection Department.

When he took over, Jair already knew what to do. He put a plan in practice that, instead of offering something new, sought to bring back successful strategies and replicate them on a large scale. It was split into five areas: 1) go into the field to prevent action by those perpetrating deforestation; 2) seize cattle being raised in areas where the forest should be regenerating; 3) use technology to stop the devastation on public and private lands; 4) remove illegal timber credits from the market; and 5) combat illegal mining in Indigenous territories.

One year later, prominent observers, including climate scientist Carlos Nobre, the environmental regulator’s former president and public policy expert Suely Araújo, and environment journalist Claudio Angelo, have pointed to the work Ibama has done as largely responsible for a 50% year-over-year decline in deforestation in the Legal Amazon in 2023. Data that Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research has provided from its Real-Time Deforestation Detection System, which issues alerts nearly in real-time, indicate the Amazon Rainforest lost 5,151 square kilometers last year. In 2022, the last year under the extreme-right administration of Jair Bolsonaro (Liberal Party), 10,277 square kilometers of forest were felled in the Legal Amazon.

An Ibama environmental agent watches as an airplane used for illegal mining within Yanomami Indigenous Territory is destroyed, in February 2023. Photo: Ibama

Data from the detection system is less precise than data provided by the Program to Calculate Deforestation in the Amazon, which is also produced by the National Institute for Space Research. With cycles ending each year in July, the Program, widely known by its Portuguese initials Prodes, was already seeing deforestation trending downward in the world’s largest rainforest, which plays a fundamental role in the planet’s increasingly fragile climate balance. It found a 22% loss in plant cover in the Amazon from August 2022 to July 2023 – a year that encompassed both the last months of the Bolsonaro administration (2019-2022) and the first seven months of the Lula administration, which began in 2023.

The drop in deforestation is remarkable, especially considering the explosion in crime during the last six months of the previous extreme-right government. “I know how strong the staff at Ibama are, I hoped they would achieve good results,” says Suely. Araújo holds a PhD in Political Science and wrote her thesis on Brazilian environmental policy from 1992 to 2012. She led the environmental regulator from mid-2016 to early 2019, when Vice President Michel Temer (Brazilian Democratic Movement) took over as president after the office’s holder, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached. Though initially welcomed with some mistrust, Suely earned the respect of government workers and environmentalists. “The secret to this good result is the choice of different types of operations. That’s something Jair Schmitt has always advocated. He’s a great strategist; it’s what he’s known for at Ibama.”

Carlos Nobre, a researcher with the Advanced Studies Institute at the University of São Paulo and one of the foremost voices in the world when it comes to the Amazon Rainforest’s role in balancing the planet’s climate, emphasizes the “political moment favors a reduction in deforestation.” “I think the next Program to Calculate Deforestation in the Amazon [to be released in the second half of 2024] will show reduction in excess of 50%,” he predicts.

“Deforestation alerts from the Real-Time Deforestation Detection System (known as Deter) were growing by 54% in the last half of 2022,” recalls Claudio Angelo, the coordinator of communications and climate policy at the Climate Observatory, a coalition of Brazilian civil society organizations founded in 2002. “If someone had asked me to place bets early last year on what deforestation trends would be in 2023, I would’ve been all in on growth. The forest was being toppled at a very fast pace, to the point where I thought the government would have a very tough time to turn this around in six months. But they did it.”

The dip in the deforestation of the Amazon is the most significant result that Lula was able to show at the end of the first year of his third term. It’s a personal victory for Environment and Climate Change Minister Marina Silva. Despite facing resistance within the government and from the National Congress – including within what should be a friendly base – Silva was able to shore up the political support needed to bring back enforcement of environmental crimes. Having returned to the federal government after losing a dispute for the developmentalism personified at the time by Dilma Rousseff – who started Lula’s first term as the Mines and Energy Minister and later became Chief of Staff – Marina now has more authority to make herself heard in an administration that claims to be committed to tackling the climate crisis. Over 15 years after ending her first term as a minister, the current context points to much greater domestic and foreign concern with the climate crisis and its catastrophic social and economic effects.

Marina Silva’s presence also provides an international edge for a government that frequently wavers in its socioenvironmental commitments, as it did when advocating a new front for oil exploration in the Amazon. On the other hand, the minister’s adversaries have never been stronger – just follow the steamroller being driven by the soy, cattle, landgrabbing, agrochemicals, and ultraprocessed foods lobbies in Congress, moving at an alarming pace to destroy legislation that would protect nature and Indigenous people.

The victory against deforestation – even in a year when forest fires, mostly set by criminals, saw explosive growth – is the result of efforts by the government workers at one of the federal agencies that has been subject to the most mistreatment in recent years. In early January of this year, they halted field operations to force Lula to restore at least some of the salary losses they have accumulated over years of going unrecognized. In January, the first month of the stoppage, issuance of environmental fines fell by 69% across Brazil. In the Amazon, these fines were down 88%. Lula had already given raises to the Federal Police and Federal Highway Police and this, in the opinion of these government workers, showed an imbalance in the priorities of a president who projected an image as a global leader on ecology. After resuming negotiations, Ascema, the union that represents government employees working with the environment, said in a statement on February 1 that “there is no connection between what [employees are demanding] and the government’s proposal.”

Crime, but no punishment

You don’t have to know Jair Schmitt’s last name to tell that he comes from German ancestors. Tall and thin, his skin is very pale, his hair and beard are somewhere between blond and red – with white hairs jutting out here and there. He was born in Porto União, a city in the state of Santa Catarina that emerged along the banks of the first stretch of the Iguaçu River, on the border with Paraná. The son of farmers, when he was still a teen he would walk the city’s streets selling popsicles. He got a job at an accounting firm and once he had passed his college entrance exams, he went to the local university to study math. In his junior year, unhappy, he dropped out. Going after his dream of becoming a biologist, he left the family home and his town and moved to Ponta Grossa for school, 200 kilometers to the north, in Paraná.

He graduated in 1999. In 2002, he moved another 560 kilometers to do his Master’s in São Carlos, in the interior of the state of São Paulo. That was when he learned Ibama had begun to offer a civil service exam (the agency’s first ever). He took the test and passed. The next year, he headed to the Amazon, where he started his career as an environmental enforcement agent.

“I quickly found myself in distress, thinking about what the rationale was, what the result was of enforcement,” he explains. So much so that, years later, now in the nation’s capital, he applied to a doctoral program at the University of Brasília. In his research, he developed a mathematical model, based on the Economic Theory of Crime, for measuring the degree to which environmental enforcement was capable of deterring environmental criminals and preventing deforestation in the Amazon. The result was discouraging: those caught devastating the forest paid just over R$ 38 (around U$ 7.65) in fines per hectare. Five years later, each deforested hectare generated R$ 2,700 (a little under U$ 550) in profits – over 70 times the amount of the fine.

Jair then proposed changes in how enforcement is done, with intensive use of satellite monitoring systems. His thesis, entitled “Crime without punishment: the effectiveness of environmental enforcement in controlling illegal deforestation in the Amazon,” was awarded the prestigious Capes Prize for best doctoral research paper in Brazil in the environmental sciences. The Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel, or Capes, is a foundation connected to the Education Ministry that assesses and supports graduate studies in Brazil.

At Ibama, Jair and some colleagues began to develop a process for using systems like the Real-Time Deforestation Detection System and the national Environmental Registry of Rural Properties, where farmers voluntarily provide the precise location of areas they claim to own, even if these areas overlap conservation units or Indigenous territories. This integrated system meant the environmental regulator could carry out environmental enforcement remotely. By adding data on authorized cutting (or suppression of vegetation, the technical term) permitted by state governments, the equation allowing environmental crime to be remotely identified and penalized. Suely Araújo, Ibama’s president at the time, took up the idea. This was the seed of the Remote Control Operation.

Fighting from afar

Attorney André Lima’s plane touched down in Brasília late in the afternoon of Sunday, January 8, 2023. The city was a war zone: under the complacent watch of the Federal District’s Military Police force, hordes of Bolsonaro supporters had invaded and vandalized the president’s residence, the National Congress and – especially – the Federal Supreme Court. They were looking for a way to topple the recently installed Lula administration.

The tension and bewilderment that followed the frustrated coup attempt were still palpable at the seat of ministerial operations on Wednesday, January 11, when Lima arrived at Block B on the Esplanade, the headquarters of the recently renamed Environment and Climate Change Ministry. “We’ve been here before, but now the challenge is much bigger. But you know what needs to be done,” Marina Silva said to him. André accepted an invitation to serve as the extraordinary secretary of Deforestation Control and Environmental Territory Order.

“I was doing very well in the interior,” André says jokingly at the start of an over hour-long interview with SUMAÚMA in his office. Although he was born in Araraquara and lived in Piracicaba, cities at the heart of the state of São Paulo, he never lost the accent of someone who grew up in the upper middle class Pinheiros neighborhood of the city of São Paulo. A graduate of the Largo São Francisco School of Law, André moved to Brasília in 1999 to work at Instituto Socioambiental, one of the main non-governmental organizations dedicated to conserving biodiversity and Indigenous peoples and traditional communities in Brazil. He served as environment secretary in the Federal District from 2015 to 2017. He also helped found and build the Sustainability Network political party – it was Lima who went to the notary public in 2013 to register the bylaws of the party founded by Marina Silva.

With deforestation out of control during the Bolsonaro years, André knew there was no time to lose. “In the first semester, it was emergency action,” he says. “We were very decisive about the importance of bringing back remote enforcement operations.”

In 2016, the Remote Control Operation had been started as a pilot project. It was abandoned by the Bolsonaro administration in 2019. In 2023, with Lula as president, Ibama employees began to once again cross-reference information from the Real-Time Deforestation Detection System and, when available, information from owners of areas under enforcement and of processes authorizing the removal of plant cover – a rare occurrence in the Amazon, where 94% of deforestation is done illegally. When crimes are found, fines are issued and areas are placed under embargo. All done remotely. When the land’s owner is identified in the Environmental Registry of Rural Properties, a fine and notice of embargo are sent by mail.

“What’s important in Remote Control is the embargo, not the fine. It’s a public statement that this area can’t be used for any purpose. Anyone who purchases a product coming from this area can be punished,” Jair explains. “This transfers the burden of deforestation to the entire production chain, creating an economic and reputational risk for whoever maintains relations with the offender.”

Even if the area is not listed in the Environmental Registry of Rural Properties – and therefore has no associated individual or corporate tax ID number – it can still be embargoed. “The embargo isn’t a sanction against someone committing deforestation, rather it’s an order stating that the area cannot be used and should be vacated so that nature can regenerate,” André clarifies.

The information on the embargo is passed along to municipal governments and public agencies handling land use issues, such as Brazil’s agrarian reform agency, Incra, and state land management institutes. And, most importantly, to Brazil’s Central Bank. This means the banking system must deny financing to anyone who wants to invest in this area – including funds available through Plano Safra, the main line of credit for the country’s farms, which will offer R$ 364 billion by June 2024. “Sometimes, even the owner doesn’t know their area is embargoed,” says André. They only find out when they go to visit a bank looking for money to finance cattle or soybean farming in an area that was irregularly deforested.

In January 2024, a National Monetary Council decision took effect that made life harder for the perpetrators of deforestation. Embargoes issued by state environmental agencies – and no longer just by Ibama – began to block access to financing. This measure put an end to one type of stunt: because there can only be one embargo on a given area, those practicing deforestation invited a state embargo so as to avoid a federal embargo, which had more serious consequences. Without being able to embargo an area, since it was already embargoed by the state, Ibama was prevented from acting, leaving a clear path to credit. “The state embargo became a free pass. [But] This is over,” André says in short.

In 2023, the federal environmental regulator embargoed around 350,000 hectares – or 3,500 square kilometers – of illegally deforested land in the Amazon. This is equal to more than half of the total deforestation in this biome in the last year, or to more than twice the area of São Paulo, the most populous city in the Americas and in the entire southern hemisphere. “It’s a fast, cheap, and very impactful job,” Jair says.

Ibama agents in action during Operation Resumption, in Pacajá, in the state of Pará, in April 2023. Photos: Ibama

Hitting ranchers in their pockets

Bruno Barbosa was perplexed by what was being repeated in the field operations Ibama was carrying out in the Amazon. It was 2008, and the enforcement work was stuck on what he would come to call the “front factory.” “Each time they went into the field, our agents were approached by people claiming to be the owners of the areas we were embargoing. We knew it wasn’t true,” says Bruno.

Because the Environmental Registry of Rural Properties wasn’t around at the time, it was hard to expose the hoax. So, the fine was issued in the name of someone who had nothing to do with the crime, and the perpetrators of deforestation escaped punishment. “It became an escape valve for offenders,” he points out, with an accent that betrays his roots in Minas Gerais. Bruno, who holds a Bachelor’s in Law, moves his hands plenty while speaking incisively. He landed a job at Ibama by taking the same civil service exam as Jair Schmitt, but a year later in 2003, and he now holds a PhD in Biopiracy, which has allowed him to create an area within Ibama dedicated to fighting these types of crimes in Brazil.

Helped by his thick glasses, Bruno had read and was impressed by On War, a memoir written by Prussian general Carl Von Clausewitz. Published in 1832, the book is still, nearly two centuries later, an influential treatise on strategy. Among other concepts, it introduced the “fog of war,” where one side in combat never has a precise idea of its enemy’s capabilities. In the case of Ibama, the “enemy” is environmental criminals.

With Clausewitz in mind, Bruno proposed something unprecedented up until then: seizing cattle found in deforested areas. “With this, we are able to hit whoever is actually making money from environmental crime,” he says. “But what’s important is the doctrine of deterrence: the antagonist might even be stronger than you. But they’ll have to incur great losses to challenge you. You don’t need to defeat the offender. You just need to show them that they will lose too much if they decide to take you on.”

This idea gave rise to Operation Pirate Cow 1, carried out in 2008, at a conservation unit in Terra do Meio, Pará. “There was a court order to remove 3,000 head of cattle there. It was extremely arduous. It took us six months to remove all the cattle,” he recalls. One year later, Bruno, promoted to enforcement coordinator at the environmental regulator, took another step forward: he put together an operation to seize cattle even without a court order, but with evidence of environmental crime, in the region of the Jamanxim National Forest, in Novo Progresso, also in the state of Pará – the municipality leading deforestation in the Amazon at that time. It was another success. “Pirate Cow 2 was the only thing capable of bringing down deforestation in Novo Progresso,” states journalist Claudio Angelo.

To deal with the forced isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, Jair Schmitt developed a habit of calling his friends or colleagues while he made lunch. Bruno, who had led the agency, was one of the people he talked to. In 2022, with the Bolsonaro administration nearing its end, talks between them began to touch on the near future. A Pirate Cow enthusiast, Bruno argued the operation should be brought back to mark the environmental regulator’s return to the field after the years of deforestation sprees authorized by then-President Bolsonaro. “In 87% of the areas Ibama had embargoed, the order to allow the forest to regenerate was not being fulfilled,” Jair Schmidt explained. “In 81% of these cases, the cause was cattle farming.” In April 2023, with Bruno at the helm, the environmental regulator launched Operation Resumption. In just a few days, 3,000 animals were seized in Pacajá, Pará, and in Lábrea and Manicoré, Amazonas.

The idea driving operations like Resumption is the same idea behind Pirate Cow. There are over 100 million steers and heifers in the Amazon, and a considerable number of them graze in embargoed areas. Nevertheless it is not feasible – in practical and political terms – to seize every animal placed in an irregular situation by their owners. “We try to execute emblematic seizures, with the strategic objective of deterring the advancement of environmental crime,” Bruno explains. “We choose critical regions in terms of deforestation and we notify whoever has cattle there in embargoed areas to remove the cows.”

The notifications set off a reaction from environmental criminals, who called on regional politicians to apply pressure in Brasília to end the operation. In the Amazon, there is a close relationship between success at the polls and the landgrabbing that devastates the forest. Whether in the case of people like Jaime Bagatoli (Liberal Party for Rondônia), a livestock farmer; or of Zequinha Marinho (Podemos for Pará), a government employee at Banco da Amazônia, a pentecostal preacher with the Assembly of God church, and a staunch defender of those invading Indigenous Territories. “Right after we began Resumption, there was a day when Rodrigo [Agostinho] received over 40 politicians from Rondônia here at the Ibama, at the PrevFogo auditorium. It was councilmembers, state deputies, federal deputies, senators, everyone complaining about the work we were doing. A sign that it was effective,” Jair notes. The political pressure – up to now – has come to nothing.

The next step in the offenders’ strategy was to try to gain more time from Ibama agents to comply with notifications to remove cattle. “It’s no easy task moving cattle in the Amazon. You have to rent trucks and oftentimes vaccinate animals raised without the necessary health care,” Bruno explains. And there isn’t always unembargoed land where the cows can be taken. The large and unexpected supply also lowers the price the animals fetch. Between the risk of seizure by Ibama and the low prices offered by meatpackers, owners of illegal cattle realize they will incur losses. “At normal prices, a steer weighing around 500 kilos is worth around R$ 8,000 [approximately U$ 1,600],” says Jair. “This apprehension generates a feeling of immediate loss. The offenders start to panic.”

An operation to remove steers and heifers from Ituna/Itatá Indigenous Territory, in Pará, where they are raised illegally. Photos: Lela Beltrão/SUMAÚMA

Ibama agents then called a meeting, open to the community, with cattle farmers, agriculture trade unionists, and political leaders in the region. The offenders saw it as an opportunity to push their interests and they showed up en masse. “It becomes an event, everyone comes to support the owner of the seized cattle,” Bruno says. “Then, they hear the message that if the deforestation stops, Ibama will likely move into regions that are still critical and, for now, there will be no new seizures. The guy ends up all alone.”

Put plainly, each man for himself. This conveys the message that it’s time to turn off the chainsaws. “Everyone wants us to leave. But we make it clear that what determines this are the next satellite images [from the Real-Time Deforestation Detection System], 15 days from then. That prompts the offenders to begin a frantic process of containing deforestation, so that no more of their cattle are seized,” says Bruno. “They know that if deforestation starts growing again, they’ll be the next targets, since they have cattle occupying embargoed areas. In the meantime, we are able to move our enforcement teams to other critical locations. Like in Aikido [a Japanese martial art where the violence used by one’s opponent is turned into a weapon], our weakness becomes our strength.”

One Indigenous territory in Pará has been the target of this kind of operation since last August, the Eraha Tapiro Indigenous Territory, which SUMAÚMA followed over three days. Two thousand animals have already been removed from the Ituna/Itatá Indigenous Territory, one of the most deforested in Brazil. Nevertheless, at least the same number of animals remain.

An agent observes cattle seized in Indigenous Territory in Pará, in August 2023. Photo: Lela Beltrão/SUMAÚMA

An assertive emergency

In the plan designed by Jair Schmitt, Operation Resumption would have been the first forceful initiative from the environmental regulator in 2023. But it was preceded by another emergency. On December 23, 2022, Jair was isolated at home with COVID-19 when some of his coworkers, who knew he was part of the transitional government’s Environment Working Group, urgently asked to speak with him. Still feverish, with his mug of coffee in hand, Jair sat down in front of his computer to listen to a report, given at a virtual meeting, on the situation in Yanomami Indigenous Territory. As would be reported by SUMAÚMA shortly after, he heard there was a devastating health crisis in progress. At the end, he sent a message: “Get ready, have a strategic plan assembled. If we have an opportunity, we’ll use it.”

The opportunity arose in the form of an emergency. As the early days of February 2023 passed by, the Defense Ministry was stalling: José Múcio Monteiro, the head of the ministry, asked for “time to perform a diagnosis” of the Yanomami’s situation – under Múcio, the Army has two border platoons within the Indigenous territory. The Federal Police also seemed willing to wait. At the Environment and Climate Change Ministry, Ibama’s plan was on the table. The surgical plan was to initially send in 12 agents from the Specialized Enforcement Group, a type of elite unit at the agency made up of personnel trained for high-risk missions. Minister Marina Silva and her staff gave the go-ahead.

On Monday, February 6, the Specialized Enforcement Group, flanked by workers from Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, Funai, and agents from the National Public Security Force entered Yanomami Territory. In two days, they destroyed a helicopter, an airplane, a bulldozer, and logistics support structures for illegal mining operations, in addition to seizing two guns, three boats, and 5,000 liters of fuel. In the following days, the Armed Forces and Federal Police would join the effort.

An Ibama agent looks on as a barge used in illegal mining is destroyed in Yanomami Indigenous Territory, in February 2023. Photo: Ibama

“Over two months, that was our main operation,” Jair explained. Fighting illegal mining doesn’t cause deforestation to fall drastically, because this activity requires little forest area to be cleared in comparison to livestock farming, for example. The health emergency was the decisive factor in making entry into Yanomami territory a top priority at Ibama and the ministry. So much so that Marina Silva decided her first public appearance after returning to her position as a minister would be made in the Amazon, instead of at a previously scheduled work meeting in Belém.

The operation announced the Brazilian government’s return to fighting environmental crime. “The image of Ibama working, along with the president of the nation and the Environment and Climate Change minister, making it clear that they would fight illegal mining and deforestation, was important in creating a perception that things had changed,” Jair says.

An Empire State Building of illegal timber

Edevar Sovete suspected that something was wrong when his computer screen showed companies headquartered in Pernambuco, Paraíba, Bahia, and the Federal District were passing out virtual credits to cut timber to establishments in Rondônia. The virtual credit is a document issued by the National Forestry Products Control System guaranteeing the legal provenance of timber. It was unusual for timber to leave what is generally a center of consumption to go to a state where it is traditionally an export.

Born in Cacoal, in the state of Rondônia, Edevar studied Math at university and was a teacher in the state school system when a biologist friend mentioned that Ibama had opened a civil service exam. His initial reaction was that he “had nothing in common with the agency.” Yet when he read the job posting he realized this wasn’t true. He took the exam and passed – his friend didn’t. Edevar has been at the environmental regulator since 2005, specializing in the examination of massive spreadsheets of data to find suspicious operations. At the end of 2022, he thought he had run across something big.

Edevar and his team of six civil servants uncovered a scheme where companies in the Northeast and Federal District initially purchased registered timber. This was how they put virtual credits into the system – information that allows legal timber to move through the country. Yet sales of this timber were not appropriately registered in the National Forestry Products Control System – the credits would enter, but they were never cleared. This meant the companies kept the credits, later selling them to timber companies in Rondônia. There, they were used for “frauding” – or rather, to give timber extracted from conservation units and Indigenous territories, as well as from illegal deforestation in private areas and on unused public lands, the appearance of legality. As the main targets of landgrabbing (the theft of public lands), unused lands belong to the government, but their use has yet to be defined and they may be turned into protected areas or agrarian resettlement areas.

“The credits were for species like ipe, cumaru, Brazilian cedarwood, all woods with a high commercial value, and many typical to the Amazon,” Edevar explained to SUMAÚMA. They were sent to companies operating near Indigenous territories and conservation units where deforestation alerts had spiked, such as in the regions of Cujubim and Ponta do Abunã, in Rondônia.

Since he lives in Brasília, Edevar decided to visit one of the parties suspected of generating fraudulent credits. When he reached the address, he found a gardening equipment shop that he was told had never sold timber. “The company that generated the credits didn’t exist outside of the system,” he says. “In Pernambuco, one of the companies had stated it had half a million cubic meters in virtual credits. For this to fit into the area it occupies, a pile of wood 400 meters high would need to be formed” – the Empire State Building, New York’s most iconic skyscraper, is 381 meters high and has 102 floors.

Scouring of the National Forestry Products Control System, a routine operation at the environmental regulator, picked up speed once the Bolsonaro administration ended, leading to Operation Metaverse in April 2023. It mapped the path virtual credits were taking as they left cities like Cajazeiras, in Paraíba, or Prado, in Bahia, and reached timber companies in Ji-Paraná, Nova Mamoré, Ariquemes, Vilhena, and Porto Velho, in Rondônia.

Metaverse carried out enforcement actions at 201 timber companies. It reached every state in Brazil and the Federal District. It is also investigating management plans – that is, legal felling of timber – which are supposedly providing fraudulently generated virtual credits. Ten of these plans have already been embargoed, and work is continuing into 2024. Altogether, the operation removed 2.3 million cubic meters of virtual timber credits from the National Forestry Products Control System. This is roughly equal to R$ 1.15 billion (U$ 230 million) in criminal dealings that were interrupted, considering an average value of R$ 500 (U$ 100) per credit. These 2.3 million cubic meters would fill over 100,000 trucks with timber – enough to create 2,000 kilometers of traffic in a straight line, or twice the distance by highway between Brasília and São Paulo. Producing so much timber would require deforestation of approximately 65,000 hectares of forest, an area the size of Três Picos Park, the biggest state park in Rio de Janeiro.

Ibama’s civil servants inspect a timber storage facility in Sena Madureira, in the state of Acre, in April 2023, during Operation Metaverse. Photos: Ibama

Operations like Metaverse are aimed at selective plant extraction – specific deforestation, which only illegally fells trees whose wood has a high commercial value, degrading the forest. This is different from clearcutting, where an area of forest is cut down to open space to raise cattle or grow monoculture commodities like soybeans.

Ibama also applied a strategy to combat deforestation in areas where clearcutting had advanced in 2022. Starting in January, bases were set up – some permanent – in six locations between eastern Pará and southern Amazonas, where data from a satellite system called Brasil Mais indicated deforestation had been more intense in 2022. “The choices of locations were based on the size of the areas that were being deforested,” explained Hugo Loss.

An Ibama employee since 2013, Hugo became a favored target of the Bolsonaro administration by leading operations against illegal miners and loggers in the Amazon. He was even relieved of his leadership position in April 2020, when a report on TV Globo’s Fantástico news program showed him in the field. Brazil’s intelligence agency, the Abin, spied on him in a scheme that – the Federal Police suspect – that used the State apparatus to favor the interests of the Bolsonaro family. “The existence of this additional group, the police authority argues, was seen in the illegal monitoring, for political purposes, of government employee Hugo Loss (responsible for environmental enforcement operations at Ibama), who was later dismissed from his position, possibly in retaliation for actions to fight environmental crimes,” wrote Federal Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, in a decision that authorized an operation targeted at council member Carlos Bolsonaro (Republicanos for the state of Rio de Janeiro), the second son of the former president.

“I was surveilled during the entire Bolsonaro administration. My cell phone was monitored, my residence was monitored,” says Hugo, a short and stout man from Curitiba with light eyes and dark – now thinning – hair, a long beard, and wary eyes, during a chat over coffee with SUMAÚMA in Brasília. He holds a Master’s degree in Social Anthropology from the University of Brasília and is considered one of Ibama’s most experienced field agents, yet he spent a good part of the last four years “on ice,” as he describes it. In February 2023, he was appointed Ibama’s coordinator of enforcement.

Over the year, Hugo Loss helped to assemble an operation that set up bases in Novo Progresso, Uruará, Santarém, Pacajá and São Félix do Xingu, in Pará; in Apuí and Lábrea, in Amazonas; and in Porto Velho, in Rondônia. “Enforcement actions were limited to a 150-kilometer radius from each base,” he explains. The idea was to keep teams permanently at the bases. “Previous experiences have shown us that constantly changing their position was least effective, since those perpetrating deforestation went back to doing what they had done before,” he says.

The strategy was effective, but Ibama was weighed down by a lack of structure. Right now, there are not even 800 environmental agents qualified to work in the field nationwide. However, 60% of them also perform administrative duties, which hinders their mobility, and 46% are over age 50. In total, nearly half of all job openings are unfilled, due to staff shortages. That is why just two of the bases (the Apuí and Extrema bases, in the region between Porto Velho and Lábrea) actually operated year-round. Altogether, 267 agents took part in the work coordinated by Hugo.

Even so, the results were impressive. Deforestation verified in 2023 fell by 68% year-over-year in the area where the bases operate, according to Brasil Mais, a system using satellites to monitor the Amazon, which was purchased by the Justice and Public Safety Ministry during the Bolsonaro administration. In the regions around the permanent bases of Apuí and Extrema, the drop was bigger: 70%.

Meager wages for those risking their lives

Ibama started 2023 in paralysis. Over 1,700 employees at the regulator signed a letter announcing their intention to suspend field operations until the Management and Innovation Ministry resumed talks on a wage readjustment – negotiations began during 2023, but were paused in October. After the stoppage, the ministry announced talks would resume in February. The initial salary for an environmental analyst, a position requiring a college degree, is R$ 8,800 per month. This is the position held by professionals like Jair Schmitt, Bruno Barbosa, Edevar Sovete, and Hugo Loss.

While some agents holding mid-level positions make much less: the starting salary for technical environmental staff is R$ 3,900 per month. That is the case of Ana Luiza de Assunção, who holds an undergraduate degree in Business Administration and a graduate degree in environmental law. A native of Pará, she was living in Bahia when she started working at Ibama, in 2016. She is currently back in her native state and took part in some of the regulator’s riskiest operations in 2023.

Ana is a drone operation specialist, using these devices in the field to collect images and monitor environmental criminals. From April to May, she was in Yanomami Indigenous Territory. Camped at the Palimiú base, along the edges of the Uraricoera River, she surveilled illegal miners who were trying to break a 240-meter steel cable that, stretched from one bank to the other, served as a barrier to keep criminals from advancing.

During one late-night shift, she used a drone to spot a boat moving upriver. “That night, they retreated. But, the next night, they used the change in surveillance personnel shifts to dodge the cable and get through,” she recalls. A few days later, now in May, the illegal miners attacked the Ibama base with gunfire and destroyed the barrier. Ana had just returned home. In addition to the everyday risk of getting shot, there is another risk – malaria. To try to escape the disease that has been killing hundreds of Yanomamis over recent years, the agents avoid the river bank, swarming with mosquitoes, in the late afternoon.

Months later, in August, Ana was in Ituna/Itatá Indigenous Territory. There, she had to deal with landgrabbers raising illegal cattle. The criminals destroyed bridges and set fire to kilometers of pastureland in an attempt to keep their steers and heifers from being confiscated. As in Yanomami territory, Ana went to work each day wearing a bulletproof vest. She got used to hearing threats from environmental criminals. Despite the risks to her life, this federal employee receives net monthly pay of less than R$ 5,000 (U$ 1,000).

These low wages contribute to staff shortages at the environmental regulator. Many of the candidates who pass the civil service exam never even take the job, discouraged by the bad pay. Others take the positions, but continue to look for better opportunities – one in every five candidates who started working at Ibama after the last civil service exam have already left the agency. A new civil service exam to hire more agents is on the horizon, but it will probably only take place after negotiations have ended.

Valueing a standing forest

The Environment and Climate Change Ministry supports the civil servants’ demands. “But the deforestation problem in Brazil isn’t resolved just by having agents in the field,” André Lima opines. “Data shows enforcement actions significantly reduce deforestation above 100 hectares. If enforcement is increased, there is a drop in the percentage of areas with over 100 hectares of illegal deforestation. Yet the percentage of small and medium deforestations could rise.”

Indeed, the scattering of areas of deforestation – as a side effect of stricter enforcement – is one situation that Hugo Loss’s teams ran into in the Amazon in 2023, according to an article he and his coworkers wrote about their experience. But what is the answer? For the Ministry and Ibama, it lies in technology – and in public policies that encourage conservation of a standing forest. “We need to implement a remote enforcement and fining system, as occurs with traffic. How many cars are circulating in Brazil per hour? Is there anyone who isn’t fined if they go through a red light at a major intersection? Why doesn’t deforestation work like this?” asks André.

Ibama has already submitted a project to the federal government to automate embargoes and fines using data from systems like the Environmental Registry of Rural Properties and the Program to Calculate Deforestation in the Amazon. Today, even operations like Remote Control require agents to cross-check data.

The project should cost approximately R$ 50 million, money that is likely to come from the Amazon Fund. “Databases like [agrarian reform agency] Incra’s Environmental Registry of Rural Properties, those on Indigenous territories, those from the Program to Calculate Deforestation in the Amazon, those from the Real-Time Deforestation Detection System, and those from the National Forestry Products Control System have not talked to one another as they should. And there is data from state governments, which need to be connected with federal data, and vice versa,” says André. “We’re still in this phase of integration between them, which is our big challenge.”

On another front is the secretary’s pet project, a program entitled Unity with Municipalities. It plans for R$ 600 million from the Amazon Fund by 2026, for those municipal governments across the Amazon that further reduce deforestation to invest in environmental and land regularization initiatives. André Lima says he asked around 70 mayors and municipal secretaries from the cities leading deforestation: “Do you want Ibama or the Brazilian Development Bank there? So, help us reduce deforestation.”

According to the secretary, at least 27 municipalities have already stated their intent to join the program – the rest should respond by the end of February. If it works, the program could help the region to recognize the value of a standing forest. “The government always came to these municipalities offering money for deforestation,” he says. Just remember that up until a few months ago, for example, you could get money from public banks to finance cattle farming or the planting of soybeans on land embargoed by environmental agencies because of deforestation. “Now, the State has an obligation to offer proposals that can change the game,” André Lima argues.

The next chapter in this story – one of the current administration’s few successes – will decide the near future of the Amazon as well as the fate of coming generations.

Report and text: Rafael Moro Martins
Fact-checker: Douglas Maia and Plínio Lopes
Proofreader (Portuguese): Valquíria Della Pozza
Spanish translation: Julieta Sueldo Boedo
English translation: Sarah J. Johnson
Photo Editor: Lela Beltrão
Layout and finishing: Érica Saboya
Editors: Viviane Zandonadi (editorial workflow and copy editing), and Talita Bedinelli (editor-in-chief)
Director: Eliane Brum

Ibama agents fly over illegal pastureland in Ituna/Itatá Indigenous Territory, in the municipality of Senador José Porfírio, in Pará. Photos: Lela Beltrão/SUMAÚMA

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